Workers Vanguard No. 986

16 September 2011


Hunger, Death Squad Terror—Made in U.S.A.

Guatemala Under the Imperialist Boot

Just a month after more than 500 starving, dehydrated immigrants were found huddled in two tractor-trailers in southern Mexico in May, several hundred more were detained in two similar incidents. The immigrants, almost all of whom have been deported back to their countries of origin, were mainly from Central and South America, with some from as far away as India and China. Migrant laborers such as these face enormous risks in trying to reach the U.S. Those who manage to evade Mexico’s state forces risk facing the terror of the drug cartels before they can even attempt to cross the militarized U.S. border. The slaughter of 72 immigrants in northern Mexico in August 2010 is but one of the most gruesome examples of what may befall them.

Most of those found in the tractor-trailers were from the country immediately south of Mexico, Guatemala. What is driving this emigration are the ravages inflicted by U.S. imperialism: desperate poverty and landlessness, enforced by decades of murderous repression. The Guatemalan workers and peasants have suffered imperialist military intervention, the brutality of the venal local bourgeoisie and its U.S.-financed death squad regimes, and wholesale appropriation of the land by agribusiness giants like the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita).

Underscoring the effects of U.S. imperialist plunder was an article in the London Guardian (31 May) based on a report by Oxfam titled, “Growing a Better Future—Food Justice in a Resource-Constrained World.” The article described the hopeless situation of a man working ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week, on a sugar plantation that supplies bioethanol fuel for cars in the U.S.: “His settlement in the fertile Pacific coastal area is surrounded by industrial farms, but he earns so little his family cannot afford to eat every day. Some days he survives his shift of hard physical labour on nothing but the mangoes that drop from trees by the roadside.” The worker explained: “The money I make is not enough to feed us. We feed the children first because the girls cry so much when they are hungry, but it’s not enough.”

His two daughters suffer from stunted growth—now a widespread scourge in Guatemala, especially among Mayans and other indigenous peoples. Children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition at a rate that is the highest in Latin America and fourth-highest in the world. Three percent of babies don’t live past their first year, the highest rate in Central America. Two years ago, hundreds died after a drought decimated harvests and famine swept parts of the country.

Yet Guatemala is rich in agriculture, one of the world’s largest producers of sugar, coffee and bananas. The misery of the rural masses is rooted in the fact that the country’s main productive resource, the land, is under the ownership or control of U.S. corporations and the local oligarchy. Barely 2-3 percent of the population owns more than two-thirds of the productive land, where cash crops are raised for sale on the world market. We observed in Part Two of “Imperialism Starves World’s Poor” (WV No. 920, 12 September 2008) that precolonial societies based on subsistence agriculture suffered periodic famines and mass starvation resulting from drought and other natural disasters. But in the capitalist-imperialist era, starvation arises from the drive “to bolster the profits of the masters of Wall Street, the City of London and the banks of Frankfurt and Tokyo.”

To defend the status quo in Guatemala, the U.S. has sponsored one death squad regime after another. During a 36-year campaign against a leftist guerrilla insurgency that began in 1960, some 200,000 people—mostly Mayan peasants—were killed and another 45,000 “disappeared.” This year, in the run-up to the September 11 general election, there have been at least 36 political assassinations. Today, Guatemala is second only to Colombia as the deadliest country in the hemisphere for unionists. Five officials of the SITRABI banana workers union have been assassinated in recent years, including the union’s treasurer, Idar Joel Hernández Godoy, who was gunned down in May on his way to the union hall.

Guatemala’s bourgeois rulers are currently looking to strengthen their repressive forces in the name of fighting drug trafficking. Sixteen people were shot and burned to death on a bus east of Guatemala City in November 2008, while in May of this year 25 farm workers were beheaded near the Mexican border. Seizing on the murderous violence, which has spilled over from Mexico, each of Guatemala’s top presidential candidates has vowed to step up state repression, from mobilizing the military to increasing the number of executions. The U.S. government has given millions in aid to the Guatemalan regime, as well as to Colombia and Mexico, to beef up military and police forces. These armed forces constitute the core of the capitalist state, an apparatus of organized violence directed against the working class, the peasantry and all the oppressed.

It was the “debt restructuring” programs forced onto Mexico and other Third World countries by the International Monetary Fund and other imperialist agencies in the 1980s that laid the basis for the rise of the drug trade by axing agricultural subsidies and social welfare programs. This was exacerbated by the imperialists’ later imposition of the NAFTA “free trade” accord. The effect was that small agricultural production was wrecked and a mass of ruined peasants flocked to the cities to get by in the “informal economy” (see “Mexico: Down With ‘Drug Wars’ Militarization!” WV No. 953, 26 February 2010).

The massive displacement of the population in Mexico and points South has also spurred the rise in immigration to the U.S. in recent decades. From Los Angeles port truckers to North Carolina meatpackers, workers who have made the perilous journey to El Norte can enrich the U.S. labor movement here with their experiences of bitter class battles and U.S.-sponsored repression. The labor movement must demand a stop to anti-immigrant repression and must organize immigrant workers into the unions. Full citizenship rights for all immigrants!

Legacy of the 1954 Coup

The history of U.S. depredations in Guatemala serves as a classic example of how countries in Central America and the Caribbean have been crushed under the imperialist boot and maintained as neocolonies. When president James Monroe declared in 1823 that South and Central America were off-limits for colonization by the European powers, the U.S. was in no position to enforce the so-called Monroe Doctrine. By the end of the 19th century, that had changed.

In 1898, the U.S. entered the imperialist order on the world stage in the Spanish-American War, taking over the Spanish colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. During the first three decades of the 20th century, U.S. imperialist troops intervened in Central American and Caribbean countries on nearly 20 occasions. In the military’s baggage train rode the representatives of giant U.S. corporations such as the United Fruit Company. By mid-century, United Fruit alone controlled almost 5,500 square miles of land throughout this region. In countries such as Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica, which were derisively referred to as “banana republics,” United Fruit’s will was law. When banana workers in Colombia went on strike in 1928, the military gunned down strikers and their families in the town of Ciénaga, a massacre immortalized by novelist Gabriel García Márquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

In Guatemala, Washington engineered the 1954 overthrow of bourgeois populist president Jacobo Arbenz, who had attempted to institute such reforms as nationalizing some of United Fruit’s land. Arbenz ordered that unused land, which included 85 percent of United Fruit’s holdings, be purchased at its declared value and distributed to landless peasants. United Fruit countered that $628,000, its earlier valuation of the land for tax purposes, was not enough and demanded $16 million instead.

Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, CIA chief Allen Dulles, were connected to United Fruit’s law firm, and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., was a big stockholder. But it was the context of the Cold War against the Soviet Union that underlay Washington’s anti-Communist frenzy over Arbenz’s modest agrarian reforms. Minor participation in his government by the tiny Stalinist Guatemalan Labor Party (PGT) was seized upon to launch a red-scare propaganda campaign to go along with direct backing for reactionary Guatemalan cutthroats. The CIA worked to oust Arbenz from within, while a ragtag army of a few hundred was organized in Honduras under the exiled Carlos Castillo Armas, who had received training at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.

Key to the invasion’s success was the bombing and strafing of Guatemala City by U.S. airplanes flown by U.S. pilots. CIA honcho Howard Hunt (infamous for his role in the 1972 Watergate scandal) starkly—and shamelessly—described the mission in CNN’s documentary series Cold War: “What we wanted to do was have a terror campaign, to terrify Arbenz particularly, terrify his troops, much as the German Stuka bombers terrified the populations of Belgium, Holland and Poland at the onset of World War II and just rendered everybody paralyzed.”

Abandoned by his army, Arbenz resigned, ceding power to Colonel Carlos Enrique Díaz. John Peurifoy, the U.S. ambassador, presented Díaz with a list of alleged Communists to be killed. Díaz responded by declaring his intention to release all political prisoners, including PGT members. Peurifoy ordered the bombing to continue, and Díaz was removed from office at gunpoint. A U.S. embassy plane flew in with Guatemala’s new leader, Castillo Armas, and waves of bloody repression soon ensued. PGT members as well as peasant and labor leaders were rounded up and incarcerated or executed, and land was returned to United Fruit and the oligarchs. Three years later, Castillo Armas was shot dead, one of the “regime changes” that would be commonplace in Guatemala over the next few decades.

U.S. imperialism’s “labor lieutenants” were active in anti-Communist intrigues in Guatemala, as they were throughout the world. American Federation of Labor operatives undermined PGT influence in the unions and recruited right-wing unionists for the invasion force. Guatemala was a training ground for the treacherous role that the AFL-CIO bureaucracy would later play in Central and South America through its notorious American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), which worked with the CIA to destroy militant, left-led unions.

As we explained in “Guatemala—CIA’s Mass Murder Inc.” (WV No. 621, 21 April 1995), “Grisly repression is a fundamental feature of the U.S. empire, which repeatedly drives the workers and peasants in its neocolonies to desperate uprisings as Wall Street literally drains their lives to fill its coffers.” In the early 1960s, nationalist officers launched a guerrilla insurrection out of disgust with the puppet government’s subservience to Washington. In response, U.S. military “advisers” began training Guatemalan forces in political assassinations on a mass scale and other “counterinsurgency” measures.

As the U.S. launched Cold War II in the late 1970s and early ’80s, it sent millions of dollars in aid to El Salvador’s death squad regime as it was fighting against a leftist insurgency and armed and trained the contra reactionaries fighting to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Some of the bloodiest terror in Central America was carried out in Guatemala, where the juntas’ war against the guerrillas and indigenous populations of the western highlands reached genocidal levels. Trained and supplied with arms and helicopters by the U.S., the Guatemalan military carried out more than 600 massacres, wiping out villages and slaughtering unarmed men, women and children—sometimes hundreds at a time. The slightest social protest was branded as “communist” and “pro-guerrilla.” The most bloodthirsty of Guatemala’s military butchers, General Efraín Ríos Montt, declared: “We don’t have a scorched earth policy! We have a scorched communists policy!”

“Truth and Reconciliation” = Illusions and Impunity

Survivors of the U.S.-sponsored terror in Guatemala want justice for what they suffered. A common scene in recent years is crowds of Mayans gathered around mass graves as teams of forensic anthropologists dig up the remains of their loved ones. The markings on the skeletal remains provide testimony to the sadistic manner in which the victims were shot, hacked and bludgeoned to death. Several memorials have been established at the sites of the massacres, with lists of names of the victims and vivid murals depicting the horrors they were subjected to.

Guatemala’s current center-left government has recently rehabilitated Arbenz, who will be recognized in the national school curriculum and have a highway named after him. But this is just whitewash for the murderous capitalist state apparatus that continues to bludgeon the working class and all the rural and urban poor on behalf of the Guatemalan bourgeoisie and its imperialist overlords. A few prominent figures have been charged with genocide, and some low-level military figures have been jailed. But key orchestrators of the military/death squad terror are still around, including Otto Pérez Molina, the likely new president. In one recent “reconciliation” measure, monetary “compensation” has been granted to the Civilian Self-Defense Patrols, the paramilitary forces that carried out some of the most horrendous atrocities! As one trade unionist put it, “How can it be that the same people that were massacred by these organizations have to pay them for the damage they’ve done?”

The horrors suffered by the Guatemalan masses are emblematic of the workings of capitalism in the colonial and neocolonial countries. But just as it has spread its exploitation and terror around the globe, the capitalist system has also spread the seeds of its own destruction by creating a proletariat with the capacity to seize the wealth accumulated by the capitalists from the brutal exploitation of labor. The only way out of the misery imposed by the imperialists on Guatemala lies through proletarian revolution in Central America and Mexico and, crucially, in the U.S. imperialist heartland. As we wrote in our 1995 article on Guatemala, “The tentacles of the octopus (as United Fruit was known throughout Central America) can be cut off, as in Cuba, but Yankee imperialism will continue to strangle the hemisphere until it is struck in the heart.” This struggle requires the leadership of Trotskyist parties, sections of a reforged Fourth International.